Saturday, August 8, 2009

Racism, Class Power and Democracy

Within the framework of neoliberal 'development' prescriptions, it is 'bad policy' to enact laws in a 'developing nation' which imposed higher taxes or regulations on foreign corporations operating in that nation. Imagine the following semi-true scenario: we're in South Africa in 1995. After decades of oppression and Apartheid, finally universal suffrage is extended and a Left-wing government promising to fight for universal health care is elected by a margin of 80%-20%.

In this case the democratically-elected government of a sovereign nation has an overwhelming majority and has the strong popular backing of more than 80% of the electorate. The Constitution of the country states that the legislative branch of government, backed by a democratic mandate, has the sole power to make laws as it sees fit within the limits set by the Constitution.

Unfortunately this isn't how it works under capitalism. Say the hugely popular government wants to impose a new corporate tax to fund a social program aiming to provide health services. Say they have more than the enough votes to easily pass the law.

We can imagine the companies who would be taxed saying in response: if you tax us heavily we will leave the country. Capital flight, massive job losses and economic turmoil will be the result. Still want to try and tax us?

Make no mistake: this is a threat. And it is one that no government could possibly ignore. As soon as the government heeds the threat, it becomes clear that the legislative branch is neither as sovereign or powerful as it would seem on paper. Despite overwhelming popular support, a small clique of capitalists, themselves accountable to no democratic vote, have an inordinate amount of leverage over what becomes law (and this is already assuming that they haven't done anything to game the process via lobbying). In this case political power is subject to democratic principles but economic/class power is not. The result is that undemocratic concentrations of economic power have bargaining clout and leverage over democratic political institutions. This is especially lopsided in 'developing' nations whose economies may depend very heavily on foreign investment.

But neoliberals see no problem here. They would merely comment that it would be 'bad policy' to raise the taxes on corporations. Instead the job of governmental institutions is to create a 'good business climate' and create conditions favourable to large accumulation of profits by business. This will bring jobs, investment, etc. Democracy may actually get in the way of this process, according to the neoliberal line, so it is not particularly useful in 'development' to have wide democratic participation. Let the capitalists and 'experts' organize and coordinate participation.

Now fast forward to Chicago in the early 1980s. The demographics break down roughly as follows: 35% black, 35% latino, 30% white. But you would never know this from glancing at Chicago's political institutions.

In 1976 Lord/His Majesty/Mayor Richard J. Daley keeled over dead while in office. By law, the man designated to succeed him was President Pro Tempore of the City Council, William Frost. But because Frost was black, he was literally locked out of meetings and deliberations set in place by the white-majority City Council to determine who would be acting-Mayor after Daley died. A couple of days later Michael Bilandic, a white man, was declared acting-Mayor.

A power-struggle was set off within the Chicago Machine over who would be the next Big Guy. Ruptures in the Machine opened up space for a challenge from below from Chicago's black and latino majority. Over 100,000 black and Latino voters were registered for the first time to vote by community organizers. Harold Washington, a U.S. Congressman at the time, surprised everyone when he eked out a close victory in the Democratic primary (which, in Chicago, is usually tantamount to winning the election; The Republican Party is meaningless here).

Harold Washington, Mayor 1983-87
In 1983, Washington was poised to become the first-ever black mayor of Chicago in heavily-Democratic Chicago. But after Washington won the primary, over 90% of the whites in Chicago's Democrats deserted the Party and registered as Republicans to vote for the G.O.P. challenger. This was totally unheard of.

The most frequently-aired argument against Washington was something like the following: if you elect a black man, Chicago will "become another Detroit". Jobs will go, High-rise public housing projects will be crop up everywhere, crime will sky-rocket, and another wave of severe White-flight will devastate the city's tax base.

You might say that allowing the government of Chicago to actually reflect the make-up of the people who live there would be 'bad policy'.

Now I see a lot of similarities between the imagined South Africa case and the Chicago case. In both cases, we see that when political democracy is actually extended enough to pose a threat to existing relations of power, counter-threats from elites follow. And they are in a position to make threats because of disproportionate concentrations of power outside the political realm. What I mean is that if whites didn't have the economic power, wealth, ability to move to the suburbs, etc. that they currently have, they wouldn't be in a position to make these kinds of "this city will become Detroit" threats. Can you imagine the black population threatening 'black flight' and telling white elites that they'd better listen up and change their ways? Of course not, because the black population in Chicago is not in the position of power that white elites are.

This is an unbelievably unjust state of affairs. In effect, the black population is told the following: either you stay in your place and accept that the majority-white Machine is in charge, or you can feel the wrath of disinvestment, job loss, white flight, and economic turmoil. Either we run the show, or you can have another Detroit.

What's interesting is that the "Detroit card" isn't really a cynical threat for many whites in Chicago. They believe it. They are scared, paranoid and worried that the "urban crisis" of the late 1960s/early 70s could happen again. And this is why so many whites who have qualms about Daley and the Machine vote for it again and again. But whether or not whites vote, a 30% sector of the population should not be able to even cast a veto on potential mayoral candidates. Yet the reality is that this 30% constituency largely calls the shots. Democracy? I don't think so.

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